Would you raise a baby with a stranger? The apps that offer Irish singles the chance to find a co-parent
A new breed of 'match' sites are reporting rocketing numbers of users, mostly in their 30s, who fear time is running out... but not for dating. These services pair off people who want children - without the complications of a romance
Seamus is 31, single and living in Dublin, according to his online profile. He works in a medical profession, has blue eyes and enjoys going to the cinema, reading and the outdoors.
As for his perfect match, he's open to meeting women in a variety of situations. They don't have to be single - or even to be straight.
"I'm a single male in my early 30s," he writes. "I am athletic and well educated. I am looking to parent. My job is busy and involves moving. I work hard and I am more than happy to support the child and mother. If you are interested, please don't hesitate to contact. I am happy to facilitate in any way I can."
It's not your typical dating profile, but then Co-ParentMatch.com is not your standard dating website. Instead of matching people looking for love, the site brings together those who want to have children without the complications of a romance.
And, it seems, that there are tens of thousands of them worldwide. As an alternative to adoption, surrogacy and straightforward sperm donation, sites such as PollenTree.com, Modamily.com and FamilyByDesign.com have added a 'co-parenting' dimension.
It is becoming a popular choice among singles and gay couples who want a platonic parenting agreement. The sites are reporting rocketing numbers of users, mostly in their mid to late 30s, many of whom feel time is running out and that parenting with a 'co-parent' is better than waiting to find true love.
"It's a sort of upmarket dating service," says Patrick Harrison, owner of PollenTree.com, which has 36,000 members, and approximately 300 PollenTree babies conceived through matches made on his website. Harrison set up the site four years ago after discovering a female friend was going to nightclubs to search for a sperm donor. "I thought that was a bit reckless and felt it would be a good idea to have a 'safe' place to find someone suitable."
The process is straightforward: members sign up for a fee, complete a profile and health questionnaire, search for suitable co-parents and message each other when they think they have a match. It's similar to dating sites but gives members the freedom to ask the serious questions without the friction of a new relationship. The network is worldwide; anyone can join up and it is closely vetted by Harrison's team to ensure the integrity of the website stays intact and members feel safe.
"The site was free for a number of years but all of our budget was being absorbed by people who were using it like a free dating site and we don't want to encourage that," notes Harrison, who has a no-nonsense approach to filtering and monitoring his website.
"If we notice anything untoward, we can delete the profile straight away - anyone exploiting or causing suspicion is banned." The ratio of men to women using the site is 40/60, with a 50/50 split between gay and heterosexual in both cases.
According to Harrison, the spectrum of co-parenting ranges from singles looking for a platonic parenting arrangement, to lesbian and gay couples looking for a sperm/egg donor who is involved in their child's upbringing, to those seeking a donor and a chance at romance. "The all-time match record is five minutes, 20 seconds," laughs Harrison. A woman joined and found a man who was living around the corner from her; they messaged and five minutes later closed their accounts. Surely there's an argument against the authenticity and safety of this type of 'match'? "We don't know if anything came of that match but we do advocate to take your time choosing someone: this is a monumental decision and life choice. Always meet during the day in a public place and bring a friend to help 'vet' the person."
This rule is reinforced by Ivan Fatovic, founder of Modamily, which, similar to PollenTree, started when Fatovic discovered the frustration his 30-something girlfriends felt with the casual nature of dating sites such as Tinder, Match and OKCupid. "Not only were they feeling the pressures of their biological clocks but they didn't want to be single mothers. There was nothing out there that focused on meeting people who were ready to start a family, whether it be in a romantic, co-parent or known donor relationship."
Fatovic recommends people get to know someone for an extended period of time - at least six months to a year - before proceeding with the next stage. The members who have the most success are those who have spent the time getting to know one another. It's up to each set of co-parents how they want to actually conceive their child, but artificial insemination is the predominant method.
Of course, it's not just as straightforward as having a baby together. It's hard enough selecting a child minder from the internet, but at least in the event that doesn't work out, they can be shown the door. Choosing a parent on the internet and negotiating all the issues that come with raising children - sickness, holidays, appointments, discipline, education, financial arrangements, third-party romances - brings about a whole other set of problems.
Author of The New American Family Lauren Brim has a good relationship with the co-parent of her first child, but she is still candid about the process. "Co-parenting is complicated, which is why I'm opting for a open donor for my second child," she says.
Tired of waiting for the 'right' man with whom to have kids, Brim approached a friend who had expressed an interest in having children. They spent months discussing the decision and their views on parenting before the two straight friends decided to parent together platonically. "The benefits of it far outweigh the complications but there were issues around money, general relationship disharmony, me not wanting him at the birth for intimate reasons and the fact that I travel a lot and he misses our baby.
"But we have a gorgeous two-year-old who has two homes, and parents who love and respect each other. She sees both of us every day and we both get nights off because she sleeps in both houses," says Brim, who admits that she would like her co-parent to live on the same property as their child gets older.
LA-based writer Rachel Hope has been raising her children in parenting partnerships for 27 years and is what some consider the 'godmother' of co-parenting. Her book, Family by Choice: Platonic Partnered Parenting, is a comprehensive guide to elective co-parenting based on her experience with two different co-parents.
Long before parenting websites were around, Hope was pushing the traditional boundaries, exploring her options for having children outside of marriage with friends who shared the same desire, thus challenging the notion of the 1950s nuclear family. The world has finally caught up with her.
"I chose men from my circle of friends and work colleagues," she says. "My first parenting partner, Glenn, was someone I trusted. He always kept his promises and I knew he would do the same for our child. My second parenting partner, Paul, is a creative genius and we have lived together raising our daughter for the last eight years."
As neither Glenn nor Paul is interested in having any more children, Hope is connecting with potential co-parents thorough Modamily in the hopes of having a third child. However, she advocates searching among your friends first. "The guy with whom you had so much in common in college might want a parenting partnership too. It's always better to ask before you open your search to strangers."
If you are using the internet, Hope says it's crucial to pick someone who is your equal. "The whole 'evenly yoked' rule still applies. They don't have to have the same strengths, but they must bring the same amount of benefits and complement you for your child's wellbeing, to make it fair. For example, if they aren't a reliable provider, what is the point? Sperm or a woman's eggs/womb is just not enough. Co-parenting is not a way out of the work of finding a really excellent parent for your kid."
She advises removing the expectation of a great lifelong mate and lover from the equation of parenting. "Then it gets really complicated," she laughs, before adding how important it is to get to know the person "really well". Fatovic goes a step further, encouraging people to see a therapist and a lawyer together before making any decisions. "We recommend you see a lawyer beforehand and draft a co-parenting or known donor agreement. People that rush into things without any protections are more likely to face hardships. A co-parent ends up being like a new best friend but, like any relationship, there are ups and downs so it's best to know what you're getting into. Then again, everyone I have met never regrets the decision they made, as they now have a beautiful child in the world."
While there are Irish members on various co-parenting websites - a quick online search shows profiles from Cork to Donegal - there is no Irish website dedicated to it as yet. A growing global trend, it certainly has the potential to reignite the debate about the welfare of the child here, however. Parenting partnerships are not marriages so they are not privileged with the legalities that protect a marriage but the laws vary from country to country. California law allows more than two parents on a birth certificate. In Ireland, much like the surrogacy law, a contract between parents is not legally binding and so there is a very big grey area when it comes to maintaining the child and the rights of the parent that is not the birth mother.
Solicitor Marion Campbell believes co-parenting is fraught with legal obstacles. Having represented the male donor in a prominent surrogacy case involving a lesbian couple and their male friend several years ago in Ireland, she highlights the "lack of rights" awarded to parents in similar circumstances. The couple no longer wanted the man who provided the genetic material involved in the child's life, and as he was not awarded guardianship, he had no parental rights. "In Ireland, the birth mother is the guardian and the person who provides the genetic material is not. There is no parenting agreement that is legally enforceable so it's very important if you are the genetic parent, on the birth of your child, with the consent of the mother, you be appointed guardian. And if she doesn't consent, apply to the courts for guardianship," says Campbell, who is dubious about the future harmony of co-parenting relationships. "Relationships are fraught with difficulties at the best of times and with co-parenting there's the additional issue of multiple guardians when third parties get romantically involved. Who maintains the child? Where do they live?"
Most importantly, as Campbell points out, it's about the children and their wellbeing. How do children fare when their parents are not in love with each other? How do parents get their sexual needs met and will this affect the welfare of the children? Of course, children are already born into families with far less planning, and there are plenty of children being raised in homes fraught with tension and stress that comes with separation or divorce. According to Fatovic, co-parenting is like skipping straight to divorce without the often ugly fallout. The child has two parents that love them without the fear of divorce.
But the question is whether the child's needs are being met. Co-parenting doesn't mean that a child born into a home with 'unconnected' parents is somehow doomed. Rachel Hope's success as a co-parent may be in no small part down to the fact that she, and the co-parents with whom she chooses to raise her children, are compatible, share the same core values and are committed to what is best for the kids, although conservative US talk show host Rush Limbaugh would disagree; he dedicated a whole programme to "the left" and its destruction of the American family, identifying Rachel Hope as some "anarchistic home-wrecker". What children need is parental love, stability, consistency and if two 'unconnected' parents can provide that, isn't that all that matters?